Jennifer Rainey’s assessment of summer vacation used to be that it was three long, boring months.
That was before she transferred to Fairmount Elementary School, where students attend class year-round and summer break is replaced by four minivacations that fall just when a sixth-grader needs them.
“It gives you something to look forward to,” said Jennifer, 11. “You think: ‘Hey, a couple more weeks of this and then I get three off.’ I like it this way because it seems like you get more time off.”
Jennifer’s is the nation’s longest-running year-round school. Francis Howell School District, just west of St. Louis, pioneered the concept in 1969 in an effort to solve overcrowding; but, today, education reformers think the idea may be just what the country needs to improve its educational system.
“We’re asking schools to do more and more, but we’re keeping the clock and the calendar the same. You can’t fit 10 gallons into a 5-gallon can,” said Ernest L. Boyer, former U.S. commissioner of education and now the head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N. J.
Students spend the same number of days in class, but, instead of a summer vacation, they get shorter breaks throughout the year. More and more schools are scrapping traditional schedules in favor of the more efficient year-round ones, and no one seems to be complaining.
“I’m convinced that a longer school year is inevitable because of the need to . . . meet the changing work and family patterns of the nation,” Boyer said.
This year, an estimated 475,000 students in 19 states--less than 1% of the nation’s students--attend year-round schools, said Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Assn. for Year-Round Schooling.
But that’s twice as many as five years ago, he said.
Ohio has the longest school year, with 182 days, and Minnesota has the shortest with 170, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Missouri’s state Board of Education plans to ask the Legislature to increase its 174-day year--the nation’s second-shortest--to 200 days by the year 2000. Thirty-four states use 180-day school years.
Even if the school year is not lengthened, many educators say, a year-round schedule makes sense. Some say it improves learning. Others say it helps ease overcrowding and puts school buildings to work full time.
“The traditional, agricultural calendar has no value to us any longer,” said Norman Brekke, superintendent of the K-8 Oxnard School District in Ventura County, Calif.
“As a matter of fact, the nine-month calendar and the fact that schools are out for three months of the year is a costly extravagance, which I don’t believe our society should accept.”
Brekke said that his district saved $16 million--the cost of two new schools--by converting to year-round classes in 1976, and test scores have improved.
Supporters of year-round schooling include the Missouri branch of the National Education Assn., which recently issued a task force report recommending that all of the state’s schools consider year-round programs.
In California, state law requires districts to file a feasibility study on year-round schools or have a program to be eligible for some building funds.
Utah also has provided incentives for consideration of year-round plans, and some inner-city districts must have year-round schooling by the 1990-91 year.
However, some educators say that, although they like the idea, it is not always workable.
In St. Louis, for example, Supt. Jerome Jones said that the buildings are not equipped for year-round instruction: Most are not air-conditioned, and the district already is strapped for money to pay for paint and plaster.
“Personally, I think it’s desirable,” Jones said. “If it were possible, I would explore it.”
Even the Francis Howell district has found that it is not workable at the secondary level. An experiment with a junior high school failed because of the problems presented by extracurricular activities like sports.
Another group that is not exactly thrilled is the summer camp industry.
“People are very concerned about what could happen, but, at the moment, the impact hasn’t been significant,” said Shirley Walch, who heads the American Camping Assn.'s Southern California section. “Some of our camps can accommodate and adapt, and then there are some that could be devastated by it.”
Administrators at Fairmount in St. Peters say their system is supported by students, teachers and parents.
“It’s a system that’s worked very effectively,” Principal Larry Smith said. “The burdensome part is developing the schedule, staffing the building and the movement of students and teachers in school.”
Fairmount students are split into four cycles and attend class for nine weeks, then get three weeks off. The start of each cycle is staggered so that, at any given time, three cycles are in session and one is off. Classrooms are always filled.
The system is not without some drawbacks, though. Teachers say the biggest headache is moving.
“A classroom teacher rotates with her students, so, when you go off cycle on your three-week break, you move out of your classroom so another teacher and class can move in,” teacher Chris Guinther said. “So, you end up having to pack up your teaching materials and supplies. Logistically, it’s a problem.”
Ideally, when overcrowding is not a factor, a year-round school has only one cycle and teachers don’t have to move.
For working parents, the biggest concern is arranging for child care when their vacations do not coincide with their kids’. Some children use the time to visit grandparents or enroll in YMCA or other activities.
When the schedules do coincide, Fairmount Assistant Principal Pat McCoy said, “Then it’s an advantage because you can take your kids to Disneyland in September or October and you don’t have to take them out of school, and you miss all the crowds.”